James M. Cain and the West Virginia Mine Wars

By Sean CarswellSeptember 25, 2018

James M. Cain and the West Virginia Mine Wars
IN 1922, James M. Cain traveled to the coal fields of southern West Virginia to cover the treason trial of union organizer Bill Blizzard. Cain was a young, ambitious journalist working for the Baltimore Sun. His time as a best-selling novelist, a Hollywood screenwriter, and a giant of American noir was still yet to come. The 29-year-old Cain wouldn’t even attempt to write a novel for another year or two. But his West Virginia days convinced him that he should try something bigger than articles for his local paper. They inspired him to raise his profile as a writer, to sell his journalism to national publications, and to try his hand as a novelist. His West Virginia days also struck a chord that resonated through all of his books. In some regards, every major work and many minor works of Cain struggle with the class conflicts he witnessed in the coal fields.

The events that brought Cain to West Virginia are largely unknown to most Americans today. In August and September 1921, striking coal miners raised an army 10,000 strong to take on the several-thousand-strong army that the coal companies had already raised to subjugate the miners. Tensions erupted over three days in an event known as the Battle of Blair Mountain. It was (and is) the largest armed conflict on American soil since the Civil War.

The conditions that led to the Battle of Blair Mountain were a couple of decades in the making. After a brutal 19th century of labor battles in coal fields in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and coal operators established the Central Competitive Field in 1898. This agreement allowed miners to bargain collectively, to work eight-hour days, and to make sure that the standards for weighing coal (because miners were paid by the weight of the coal they dug) were uniform and accurate. This agreement probably would have brought peace to the coal fields, but, shortly afterward, massive virgin coal seams were discovered in West Virginia. Suddenly, operators of nonunion mines could undercut their competition by paying their workers next to nothing. The UMWA made it a priority to unionize West Virginia.

West Virginia coal operators responded by employing the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. Baldwin-Felts were, at times, really detectives. Occasionally, they’d be hired to solve a crime. Mostly, though, Baldwin-Felts agents were hired thugs. Coal operators would employ them to harass, brutalize, and sometimes murder any miner who even thought about joining a union.

The power of these coal companies is hard to overstate. Coal companies owned not only the mines and mining operations, they also owned all of the land around the mine, the town itself, including all of the houses, churches, schools, and stores in town. They paid miners in company scrip instead of US currency. The scrip would serve to pay miners’ rent in company housing and purchases at the company store. Should the miners ever demand a raise, the company could simply adjust rent and store prices to make the money back.

Coal companies also had near-complete control over miners’ religion, education, and access to outside media. In the cases where a local government existed, it was typically a facade built to serve the mine bosses. In most cases, there was no government outside of the coal companies’ rules and no law except the Baldwin-Felts enforcers. Because the balance between what miners made and what they owed the company was so slim, miners frequently had no opportunity to save enough money (which they didn’t have anyway; they had scrip) to leave town. And, should any miner complain about these conditions, a Baldwin-Felts thug was nearby to crack his skull.

The UMWA spent much of the first two decades of the 20th century trying to unionize these coal fields. The tensions between, on one side, the union and the miners and, on the other side, the coal companies and their hired thugs led to several armed conflicts over the decades. In 1920, the governor of West Virginia declared martial law in the coal fields. He enlisted the Baldwin-Felts guys as militia men, and they arrested and jailed anyone they could find with union ties. Most of the men arrested were not charged with any crime. Two men who the state militia arrested and actually charged and put on trial were the pro-union sheriff of Matewan, West Virginia, Sid Hatfield, and his deputy, Ed Chambers. On August 1, 1921, when Hatfield and Chambers showed up at the courthouse unarmed for their trial, they were brutally murdered in broad daylight by Baldwin-Felts thugs. Though there were dozens of witnesses, C. E. Lively, the murderer, was never charged. The fact that hundreds of union miners were in jail with no charges pending and Lively was allowed to get away with murder was too much. The Battle of Blair Mountain erupted.

James M. Cain was familiar with this history. He outlines much of it in his 1922 article for The Atlantic. Strangely for Cain, he does not linger long on the violence, the cruelty, or the weaknesses and passions that allow for these conditions to perpetuate. He focuses more on numbers: how much coal was being dug, who was making the money, and how much. Toward the end of his article, he argues that there is only one solution for the ongoing coal wars: “This is to put the whole country on a union basis.” When Cain wrote these sentences, much of the nation was convinced that the miners were Bolsheviks trying to enact a Soviet-style revolution in the coal fields. Cain knew better. He’d spoken personally with the miners and discussed politics. He’d discovered that the miners were not only not Bolsheviks; they didn’t know what Bolsheviks were. They didn’t know who Karl Marx was. Most had never even heard of the Soviet Union. And so Cain, an idealistic young journalist who prided himself in not being for sale, bucked public opinion and spoke truth as he saw it.

This doesn’t suggest, however, that Cain was entirely on the side of the miners. He makes light of their brutal conditions in his 1923 Nation article “West Virginia: A Mine-Field Melodrama.” He characterizes the mine wars as “a silly hodge-podge of two-gun heroes, find-the-papers villains, and sweaty mysteries.” He downplays just how brutal their working and living conditions were. He dismisses the aggression of the Baldwin-Felts agents, describing them as taking a page from the Appalachian hillbilly playbook rather than being a mercenary army dispatched by the wealthy to oppress the poor.

In both his Nation and Atlantic articles, Cain refers to a line in a striking miners’ anthem: “They’re a-murderin’ the women an’ children.” In both articles, he clarifies that the coal operators had not murdered any women and children. But the truth is, Cain could not have known this with any certainty. For one thing, Baldwin-Felts agents absolutely murdered women and children in Ludlow, Colorado, in 1914 when John D. Rockefeller Jr. hired them to attack striking coal miners in his employ. For another, they opened fire regularly into tent communities full of women and children in West Virginia. Baldwin-Felts agents had an armored train car called the Bull Moose Special. They used it to ride past tent communities and fire machine guns at the striking workers. The walls of the canvas tents, of course, were no match for bullets. At one point during the Battle of Blair Mountain, coal operators even brought in four warplanes from World War I and tried to drop bombs on the miners’ camps. So, if the Baldwin-Felts thugs weren’t murdering women and children in West Virginia, it was only because their bombs and bullets missed.

Most damning from Cain, though, was his characterization of West Virginians. In his Atlantic article, Cain says that West Virginians “had interbred and lived to themselves so much that there had come into being an atrophied race, a weaker strain of American stock.” He doubles down on this characterization in his Nation article, saying that the Appalachian man settled in West Virginia “while his more energetic brethren pushed on to the Ohio River and the West.” This lazy Appalachian man lived on hogs and hominy, and, Cain says, “As time went on he and his kind interbred, the strain grew weaker and weaker, and he developed unusual ideas and customs.”

This stereotype of the incestuous hillbilly is far from unique to Cain. Recently, I traveled to West Virginia coal country. I was excited to visit a tiny, unincorporated town called Carswell (which is my last name). Everyone I told about Carswell Hollow made some version of the same joke: did you marry a cousin while you were there?

In 1946, Cain took this stereotype as far as he could with The Butterfly, which is set in West Virginia. The Butterfly is standard Cain fare. Uncontrollable passions lead men and women to compromising themselves. Their lives fall apart. There’s a murder or two. Justice isn’t what we expect. What separates this novel is the setting and the nature of the characters’ passions. Cain was so shaky about moving the novel to West Virginia that he felt he needed a preface to explain why he did that. The passions in the novel required more explanation, too. The Butterfly is about incest. A man marries his daughter. True to American stereotypes, the man and his daughter are moonshiners living in the Appalachian mountains.

This was actually Cain’s second West Virginia novel. After covering the Blizzard treason trial, Cain sold the two aforementioned articles to the Atlantic and the Nation. He left his job at the Sun and worked for a few months as a union coal miner in West Virginia. His working days were cut short after he had dinner with a mine supervisor one night. The next morning, his fellow miners made it clear that they thought he was a traitor and, if he went into the mine that day, he probably wouldn’t come back out. He returned to Baltimore. Over the next year, he wrote four drafts of a novel about a radical union organizer in the coal fields who is part of the Battle of Blair Mountain. It was envisioned as a retelling of the Samson and Delilah story. In Cain’s eyes, it was a total failure. Twenty years later, he commented that writing about labor “is really dead seed for a novelist.” But his time in West Virginia introduced him to the key emotion dividing socioeconomic classes in the United States: disgust.

If ever you’ve doubted the power of disgust in our class constructions, imagine this scenario. A man is born into wealth and privilege, and he parlays that wealth and privilege into becoming a popular spectacle. He reaches superstardom on a television show in which his main actions are to sit behind the desk as The Boss and harangue his employees. Fans of the show celebrate every time he destroys his employees’ livelihoods with his catchphrase: “You’re fired!” The disgust he shows for his employees makes him so popular that it catapults him to the presidency of the nation.

In a sense, this man would be a rewriting of Veda from Cain’s Mildred Pierce. In the novel, Veda is born into her mother Mildred’s wealth. Mildred goes from waitress to proprietor of several successful restaurants. Veda lives off this wealth, but develops a disgust for the workers who created the wealth. Most specifically, she’s disgusted by Mildred. The conflict between Veda’s class-specific disgust and Mildred’s love for her daughter propel the novel. Understanding the novel from Mildred’s perspective depends on exploring parental love. But to understand Veda, we have to ask hard questions about class divisions. We have to understand that the hoarding of wealth at the expense of others is made possible by nurturing a sense of disgust toward those whose lives are ruined by your wealth. Veda can only destroy Mildred if she’s disgusted by her. Likewise, coal operators like Quinn Morton — who commissioned the Bull Moose Special on February 2, 1913, to attack striking miners, killing one — could only spray their employees with machine gun fire and gleefully demand to do it again if he feels that the people he’s killing aren’t people. Or, if they are people, they’re a weaker race, a bunch of inbred hillbillies.

A complicated class disgust drives several Cain novels. The Postman Always Rings Twice is launched by Cora’s disgust for her husband. She describes her rich husband as “somebody that’s greasy and makes you sick at the stomach when he touches you.” But she also doesn’t want her lover to be a working stiff. She tells him, “I’d cry if I saw you in a smock, Frank.” So Cora and Frank are stuck between, on the one hand, being disgusted by Cora’s husband’s wealth and the control it gives him over their lives, and on the other hand, the disgust they’ve learned to feel toward someone of their own socioeconomic background. Cora learned her self-disgust during a Hollywood screen test in which she was pretty enough, alright, but once she opened her mouth, her accent marked her as working class. Frank learned it by falling in love with Cora and seeing himself through her eyes.

Almost all of Cain’s novels feature some examination of this disgust. To use a coal metaphor, it’s a rich, virgin seam for scholars to mine. At its core, there’s the acknowledgment that, in order for real wealth inequality to exist, the wealthy socioeconomic class must feel something other than hatred for less wealthy classes. They must feel, to borrow from Sara Ahmed’s description of disgust in The Cultural Politics of Emotion, that workers are not just “bad objects that we are afraid to incorporate, but the very designation of ‘badness’ as a quality we assume is inherent.” In other words, what makes objects or people disgusting is something innate. For Cain, West Virginians were vile because they were an “atrophied race.” For many of the wealthy living in a society of drastic wealth inequality, the working classes are born vile. They are dirty even when they’re clean. They’re trash even when they’re useful.

This mentality, Cain shows again and again in his novels, is the catalyst for murder. This mentality, Cain learned in the coal fields of West Virginia, is also the catalyst for war. And since this mentality is part of what propelled a television personality to a presidency, since it seems to be the prevailing emotional drive of the Republican Party, and since it’s also the underlying force behind so many privileged liberal think pieces about “Trump country” and “the white working class,” there’s probably never been a better time to go back to Cain and read his explorations into class-based disgust.


Sean Carswell is the author of eight books including the crime novel Dead Extra, which will be released by Prospect Park Books in May 2019. He's an associate professor at CSU Channel Islands.

LARB Contributor

Sean Carswell is the author of eight books including the crime novel Dead Extra, which will be released by Prospect Park Books in May 2019. He's an associate professor at CSU Channel Islands.


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